Wednesday, March 12, 2008


As the US searches for a democratic alternative to Communist rule in Cuba, the only model it can find is the one applied in every intervention of the last 20 or so years (the Balkans, Iraq, Haiti, the US-encouraged pastel revolutions in Eastern Europe etc). To the West, which cannot see beyond production and consumption, democracy facilitates commerce – and nothing more. It may be in the autumn of its years, but the neoliberal model has been adopted throughout the world, and has been the ruin of people everywhere.

There is a better alternative. A renewed thirst for participative politics has spread across Latin America in recent years. It takes different forms – Venezuela’s politics are Bolivarian, Bolivia’s promote citizenship for indigenous people, and the administrations of the larger economies are more liberal and pragmatic – but a leftwards shift in is unmistakable.

A handful of countries have escaped this swing, and remain resolutely conservative: Colombia and Peru’s right-wing leaders have strong links to the US, and Paraguay still struggles to escape its fascist past. Homo Ludens always points its ear to the ground when it hears of a Latino election campaign, and Paraguayans will go to the polls on 20 April to elect a new leader. Who might they go for?


A brief survey of Latin American history shows two great waves of authoritarianism. Firstly, after independence, a batch of strongmen cemented the foundations of the new Latin republics by violent means. Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia was Paraguay’s first ruler and he ruled with an iron rod. After an assassination attempt in 1820, he forbade his subjects from standing less than six paces away from him. Anyone caught looking at his Palace in Asuncion was shot on sight, and at the end of his reign he ordered the assassination of every dog in Paraguay.

The second wave of authoritarianism was inspired by the backlash from the Cuban Revolution, and from the 1950s onwards, right-wing military regimes sponsored by Washington took over much of the continent. John Pilger’s recent film The war on democracy gives a good overview of this period. It is this second wave of authoritarianism which Paraguay has failed to surmount.

Although the neo-fascist President Alfredo Stroessner was deposed by a coup in 1989, his Colorado Party have maintained power ever since, and in January celebrated 61 consecutive years in power. There have been elections on a fairly regular basis during the 90s and 00s, but they have been fairly meaningless affairs. Most Paraguayans are now worse off than they were under Stroessner's dictatorship, and more than a quarter of Paraguayan nationals have emigrated abroad. There have been widespread allegations of fraud, politically-motivated assassinations and attempted coups. Paraguay does not the share the radical tradition (buoyed by strong indigenous leadership) of its westerly neighbour Bolivia, but on several occasions since the turn of the century, peasants and workers have taken to the streets demanding that the government stops its free-market policies and pursues a policy of land redistribution.

Some commentators believe this could be the year that a left-wing candidate might finally break through the Colorado monolith. Fernando Lugo, a former priest, is riding high in the opinion polls. His Alianza Patriótica para el Cambio coalition draws together trade unions, indigenous groups, social movements and leftist parties, and has pledged to reform land and the judiciary, regain control of its natural resources, and promote the rights of indigenous people. As this report notes, “this might seem a reformist programme, but in Paraguay it is not far short of revolutionary.”

You can read more about the election here and here, and Homo Ludens will follow the election with interest. Indeed, I feel a particular passion for Paraguay. I went there in late 2005 when life seemed, frankly, like a pretty shitty affair. Asuncion and its people put a spring in my step, for which I shall be forever grateful. Here is a snippet of what I posted at the time on Snowball’s excellent blog:


On Saturday, I left the comparative security of Buenos Aires behind to take an 18 hour bus journey to Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. P.J. O'Rourke said that "Paraguay is nowhere and is famous for nothing." After Bolivia, it is South America's poorest country, and is certainly the least visited by travellers.

The reason I have come to Paraguay is that nobody else does. Every other country in Latin America has its fans, but Paraguay sits there, hemmed in by its more popular neighbours, semi-tropical, loved by nobody. My searches in the guidebook and on the Internet suggested that there is little to do in Asuncion. Having scoured Asuncion personally, I think the Lonely Planet is probably right : there really is nothing to do here.

I have never been to a capital city that behaves less like one. I have seen the Palacio de Gobierno, the Camara de Diputados and the Museo del Barro, and I have a cheap porn flick pencilled in for this afternoon (a highlight of the Paraguayan cinema matinee). And yet I will be as sorry to leave this place tomorrow as I was to leave Buenos Aires last weekend. There is something highly seductive about Asuncion´s laziness. The negligible pace must be something to do with heat. It is almost 40ºC here, humid as hell, and it is a struggle even to think straight.

The people here have been warm, funny, inquisitive (the question of why the hell I would want to visit Paraguay has come up over and over), generous and helpful. They are proud of their country, and especially of their football, but Paraguay is poor and getting poorer. Although they are less vociferous in their protests than their neighbours, the graffiti on Asuncion´s walls gives a strong hint of what Paraguayans think is at the heart of their sinking economy: PRIVATIZACIÓN = POBREZA.


Richard Gott’s LRB article concludes by reporting that my favourable attitude to Paraguay is not shared by the British government, who have apparently been reading a little too much Graham Greene:

The US Embassy meanwhile has taken over two floors of the Sheraton hotel to house its CIA contingent, pending the refurbishment and extension of the embassy itself, while James Cason, the Guaraní-speaking ambassador, has been brought in from a posting in Cuba, where his funding of members of the local dissident movement led to their arrest and imprisonment. And what of the British? They decided that other parts of the world were more interesting and closed their embassy in Paraguay permanently three years ago. They are now represented by an honorary consul.


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